A conversation on the stage of Roulette, Brooklyn NY
July 2, 2014—2:30 p.m.
Recorded by Spencer McCormick
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner
There are tons of stories about people who have devoted their whole life to new music, but few people have done so to the same extent as Jim Staley, who for more than a quarter of a century devoted his home to it as well. Soon after moving to New York City in 1978, Staley—fresh from the heady experimental atmosphere of the University of Illinois in the 1970s—started performing concerts in the lower Manhattan loft he was living in. Before too long, he realized that more folks might come to his own gigs there if he also presented others who might have a more substantial following in the space. Partnering with David Weinstein (one of them worked sound while the other manned the box office), they called the place Roulette.
From the beginning, the definition of new music at Roulette was extremely open. You were just as likely to hear jazz improvisers there as interpreters of notated contemporary music scores or electronically generated sounds. According to Staley:
The whole aesthetic and direction was founded on the two Johns: John Coltrane and John Cage. … I’ve always felt that if you’re talking about the American avant-garde, don’t just talk about Cage or the Downtown minimalist scene; you have to talk about the avant-jazz scene, too. There’s just as extensive a scene going on in jazz as there is in the new music, classical, electronics world. So that’s always been an essential part of our programming.
Staley’s adventurous and catholic tastes as a programmer emanate from his own work as a creative musician. A master experimental improviser on the trombone (“It’s an amplifier of whatever you put into it … whether you put a bassoon reed in your mouth or bass clarinet mouthpiece on it or sing through it or whatever”), Staley gets his greatest inspiration from interacting with other improvisers. He thinks of improvisation as a form of conversation and for him it really is—what others play in the moment takes him somewhere he wouldn’t have gone on his own and he influences his collaborators as well. For him, this give and take is far more artistically rewarding than creating music on his own:
I really prefer working with people. And it also changes what I do. I’ll open some doors to coming up with different solutions or going different places, if I’m working with different people. I certainly discover stuff in the middle of improvising based on what’s going on that I’d never done before.
The cooperative nature of Staley’s own music making helped to make him an ideal partner for musicians as a venue manager, but it also took over his life. By the late 1990s, presenting music in his own home became more and more problematic. A club moved into the ground floor of his building and its pounding beat-driven pre-recorded soundtrack often wafted upstairs, sometimes even drowning out the concert he was hosting. To add insult to injury, the certificate of occupancy for his building changed and Staley could no longer viably present other musicians in his home. So Roulette leased out Location One, a gallery space in SoHo, and Staley and his team lugged equipment in and out of it every time they presented something there. It was an inviting ground-floor space, but by the time Roulette was starting to establish a new home there, most of the art galleries were getting squeezed out of the neighborhood they helped to define. The Downtown scene, which had defined an aesthetic for several generations, was slowly losing its birthplace. Meanwhile Brooklyn had become a hotbed for the indie music community and the abandoned Memorial Hall, a 14,000 square-foot auditorium built circa 1928 that was owned by the Y.W.C.A., became available. So Roulette moved boroughs and went from being new music in someone’s home to a home for new music.*
Jim Staley, photo by Spencer McCormick.
Frank J. Oteri: What I think has made Roulette such a vital venue all these years is that you’re not just somebody who loves this music; you actually make music yourself so you have an insider’s understanding of the point of view of the people who are performing here.
Jim Staley: I always had a feeling of what these people really want and what’s important to them. It’s always nice to have fruit in the dressing room, but what they really want is to be treated well and to have the work sound as they envisioned it. I think everyone’s very happy because they have a very pleasant experience with the staff and they feel like their work is realized as well as it can be.
I also have to say that back when we started things, the whole aesthetic and direction was founded on the two Johns: John Coltrane and John Cage. Those two people were the most important influences on my generation. I’ve always felt that if you’re talking about the American avant-garde, don’t just talk about Cage or the Downtown minimalist scene; you have to talk about the avant-jazz scene, too. There’s just as extensive a scene going on in jazz as there is in the new music, classical, electronics world. So that’s always been an essential part of our programming.
FJO: But before we get into a deeper discussion about Roulette, I want to talk about what you were doing before it opened 35 years ago. All the bios of you I’ve read in various places invariably begin with “Jim Staley moved to New York in 1978,” which is when Roulette began. What were you doing before you moved here? What was your earliest exposure to music? How did you get interested in this stuff?
JS: Well, my mother was a musician and she decided her kids were going to be musicians, or at least play instruments. She picked the trombone for me, and I think somewhere after third grade, I started taking lessons. It just sort of grew from there. It was a normal experience: band, orchestras, whatever. I went through high school and when I got into the University of Illinois, Bob Gray—a trombone teacher I’d known since I began playing—was there and I studied with him.
Vietnam was happening and I came up with number 20. So it was clear I was going in the Army one way or the other. I was in my sophomore year of college, and I decided to audition for the Sixth Army band in San Francisco which I heard had lots of professionals. So I ended up in San Francisco, which was a pretty interesting place to be in 1970. The band had about 80 members in it, almost all non-lifers. People had come out of orchestras and the L.A. scene; most of them had their bachelor’s or master’s degrees already. It was quite a fine group of musicians. And, of course, San Francisco was a great place to be—the whole Haight-Ashbury scene was active, Berkeley, everything. I played in the Berkeley Free Symphony when I was there. After about a year, I got transferred to Germany. I ended up in Berlin. That band wasn’t so good, but there were still some wonderful people and it was a great place culturally at the time.
FJO: So technically you were a private first class in the military.
JS: Yeah, I did three years in the Army, which was what was required. The advantage of the Army was it was three years. But you have to go through basic training. So basically that was two months of hell, and you’re off to play your instrument again. If you go into the Air Force, Navy, or Marine bands, you don’t go through basic training. But it’s four years.
FJO: A lot of people don’t realize this, but those bands do a lot of new music, though certainly not the kind of new music that you wound up becoming known for. But you were also around Haight-Ashbury in 1970, which was a wild place and time for music.
JS: It was quite, and I was like 20 years old.
FJO: So is that how you got turned onto all this avant-garde stuff?
JS: No, that happened in Berlin actually. I got connected to three different important scenes when I was there. I got to be friends with Slide Hampton; he put together a big band and I was lucky enough to play in that some. He took me as his guest to the North Sea Jazz Festival once and that was quite an experience—incredible jazz legends when I was there. Then I also met Jim Fulkerson. He’d been at my school so I knew of him from Illinois, but I’d never met him. When I was in Berlin, he got my name and called me up, and we got together and played some. He got me to help out in some of his pieces. It was quite a different thing. Those were hardcore minimalist days. I also got to meet a lot of the composers and artists that were involved in the DAAD [Deutsche Akademischer Austausch Dienst (e.g., the German Academic Exchange Service)]. At that time, the DAAD was a year or two-year residency. They had a dozen to twenty composers at any given time there and as many visual artists and writers and it was quite an international scene. It’s a fellowship that’s still going. I think Zeena Parkins is just going over for a six-month residency. Lots of different composers—Ron Kuivila, Nic Collins—have done it. But it’s scaled back considerably from the time when I was there. Berlin was still an isolated city at that time—the wall was still up—so there was a lot more cultural funding going on just to keep people coming there and to keep it occupied with younger, active people and not just the retired people who originally were there. Anyway, that was a really interesting scene.
One of the guys I met, Terry Thompson—who’d been in a Navy band and had studied in Indiana and then studied with the guys in Chicago—was there trying to get an orchestra job. So we got together and played duets a lot, which was very helpful to me. Then some friends of his at the Hochschule said they were going to see this great new thing going on, why don’t we come? So I went to the Akademie Kunst, and it was an early FMP [Free Music Production] concert with 30 guys lined up against the wall just blowing their brains out for two hours straight. You know, Albert Mangelsdorff and all that. I’m sure Peter Brötzmann was one of them. Barry Guy and Paul Rutherford were coming through all the time, so I spent time going and hearing those events as well. So it was the jazz scene, the minimalist scene, and then this European-style improv scene.
Staley performing on a didgerido in 1988, photo by Barbara Mensch.
FJO: I read that you have a music education degree.
JS: I started out in that, but when I came back from the Army, I just wanted to play. Somebody suggested that I switch, but I just took some extra courses that allowed me to get a performance degree as well, a B.M. as well as a B.S. I went on to the master’s because before I finished both my bachelor’s, I was already doing some master’s courses. So it just all went together. But it was an exciting place when I was first there. The jazz band there was pretty phenomenal. Cecil Bridgewater and Ron Dewar were doing a lot of really out, experimental stuff. Gradually it got conservative again, but they were really pushing the envelope. Harry Partch had been there in the ‘50s. Lot of recordings were from there. And Cage had been there a couple of times doing his circus pieces and HPSCHD. There was that kind of energy going on there. When I came back, it had subsided somewhat, but there were still people left over who were very influenced by that. And that’s what I was looking for.
FJO: So you were never in a classroom teaching music?
JS: I did student teaching, but barely. I didn’t know if I was going to end up teaching or not. I hadn’t gotten the playing out of my system and it just kept getting more in the system, the more I did it. So I got farther and farther away from considering teaching.
FJO: Well, I find it an interesting thing in your background considering the role you now have with Roulette as an advocate for so much music. By providing people a venue in which they can hear all this experimental music, you’re teaching people about sound and what sound can be and what the possibilities are for music. Do you see that connection at all?
JS: I don’t think of it that way really. I just think that creativity is a very valuable human thing in society. And Roulette’s always been about contributing to a healthy scene. So we support the work and the people who are doing it. I’m constantly re-evaluating how I think about that. I don’t necessarily like everything, but I try to see the value in what people are doing, open it up to a range of things that are going on and try and represent that as best as possible. Each year, it’s something new. New things come, and old things fall off. So it keeps changing over time.
FJO: When did you first become connected to Morgan Powell?
JS: I knew him at school; he was a professor there. Then one of the guys who played trombone in Berlin, Barry Ross, who was the lead trombone player in one of the radio bands, had gone to Berkeley and Morgan was his teacher. So he was talking about Morgan and telling me what a great trombone player he was. I knew him as a composer writing for jazz band. I was also hearing about Sal Martirano from outside; Barry Guy had talked about him. And Fulkerson had studied with him and also with Herbert Brün and Ben Johnston. So when I went back to school, I made a point of connecting with them. I went to see Morgan and said, “I’d like to take a work study thing with you or something.” And he said, “Why don’t you just come around and we’ll hang out.” So I came and brought stuff, and we talked about music. He had a choreographer composer class he was teaching. He asked me to come and be a part of that. So I got involved with dance, which I was interested in anyway because of stuff I’d seen Mary Fulkerson do in Berlin.
FJO: When you say you brought stuff, were you already composing music at that point?
JS: No, just recordings of music, Slide Hampton’s work and other things. And we’d talk about it.
FJO: In terms of understanding this divide between composing and performing, creating your own music versus playing music that somebody else has you play, what was the moment when that crystalized for you?
JS: I think when I was in Berlin and doing the Fulkerson stuff and started becoming interested in improv. I did try to do changes, but I wasn’t a change guy. I got up in the jazz gallery on the open nights and played. I came to the conclusion that changes weren’t for me. But I did become attracted to the idea of working with sound as a way to break me out of the conventional thinking of music. And also working with dance. It’s sort of the same thing. It took me out of that conventional way of how I thought about music.
FJO: One of the things that makes the trombone such an ideal vehicle for that kind of exploration is it’s so open ended. You can play any pitch on it because of the slide.
JS: It’s an amplifier of whatever you put into it. That’s really the essence of it. It amplifies whether you put a bassoon reed in your mouth or bass clarinet mouthpiece on it or sing through it or whatever. It’s just processing that through a particular kind of filter, and amplifying it. So it’s very flexible that way. And, of course, microtonally it’s completely flexible, and so it has a lot of options. It’s very similar to the human voice in a sense.
FJO: Did your own experimentation with the instrument start in Berlin?
JS: Yeah, but I got much more involved when I came back to the university. I was playing in just about every ensemble they had, maybe ten, sixteen hours a day, a little more than they would have liked. But I just wanted to get back into it. Gradually things fell off. More and more I got involved with doing my own work after a couple of years and playing in the orchestras and other things less.
A break during a 1979 gig at Chicago’s N.A.M.E. Gallery (pictured fron left to right, back row): David Means, Jim Staley, John Fonville, David Weinstein, (and seated in front) Barbara Maloney and Dan Senn. Photol courtesy Jim Staley.
FJO: So you sort of had this informal, quasi-formal, not quite work-study relationship with Morgan. When did you officially become part of the Tone Road Ramblers? How did that happen?
JS: Well, we started it together. When I moved here, he asked about coming out and doing something. He had some people here that he wanted to work with—people like Jim McNeely and Ray Sasaki. He did a concert in my loft as part of that first spring season. Afterwards, John Fonville—I call him Jack—so Jack and Morgan and I went over across the street to the coffee shop. I’d been thinking about putting an ensemble together with Jack. And Morgan said, “I’d like to do something.” So we started brainstorming. He had some people he wanted involved. Michael Udow, Ray Sasaki and his brother Dave, and Jack. Yeah, I think that was it. It was two trombones, trumpet, clarinet, flutes, and percussion when we started.
FJO: But before you moved to New York, you were already playing with many of these people and you also said that stuff was starting to happen with groups that you were leading. So why do you pick up and come here?
JS: Well, I was on the GI bill, which back then was fantastic. I don’t have this student debt that all these poor people have now. Our generation didn’t have that, fortunately, and it made a big difference in giving us the freedom to pursue what we wanted to pursue. I had driven out in the summer of ‘77 to check out the West Coast because I loved San Francisco. And I’d gone to L.A. and there just wasn’t that much activity. There were some great people, but there wasn’t really that kind of intense [scene]. I was really looking for a critical mass of activity that went on like on campus at the University of Illinois—access to all the performers, and dance, and everything else on a professional level. L.A. was all studio stuff. People played stuff they wanted to on Monday nights because that’s when they didn’t have gigs. That’s why music concerts happened on Monday nights. That’s the night nobody had a gig. That wasn’t a scene I wanted to move to. Of course, New York was. It wasn’t going to be quite the enjoyable environment that maybe San Francisco was, but it had the same amount of artists creating and making their own work and they were actively working in a way that didn’t happen anywhere else in the country.
FJO: What I find so fascinating about New York in the ‘70s was it seemed back then that if something you wanted didn’t exist, if there was no scene that you could be a part of, you just made your own scene. In downtown Manhattan all this stuff started sprouting up. Philip Glass and Steve Reich starting their own ensembles. CBGBs became the mecca for the whole punk scene. Loft concerts downtown allowed jazz musicians to experiment in ways that the established clubs wouldn’t. Then there were all these alternative spaces where minimalism, jazz, punk, and other kinds of music intersected, like The Kitchen and, well, Roulette. I see this kind of thing happening now in Brooklyn, which is a scene you’re now a part of, but that energy is something that I think has very rarely been replicated in any place in any other time.
JS: Well, maybe it’s happening in Berlin, but they don’t have the support financially. In New York, there’s the financial industry which really is key to helping a scene work. In the ‘70s and into the early-‘80s, it was still affordable in Manhattan. When I got my loft, it was probably the last year you could find a loft like mine, for what I’m paying for it. All the activity, when I got to town, was all happening in lofts in TriBeCa and SoHo. The Kitchen was on Broome Street, and I went to so many performances. Dance and music performances were all happening in lofts. It gradually moved to the East Village and then spread around.
FJO: You lived in that loft.
JS: I still live in that loft.
FJO: It’s interesting how it went from being a place where you did your own concerts or concerts with the Tone Road Ramblers to a place that presented lots of other musicians.
JS: Well I thought, let me try to get people to come and see our things more by having other things in the loft, too. So we put together a little series. The first concert was supposed to be Ben Johnston, but he couldn’t come and had to cancel. So the first concert ended up being Malcolm Goldstein playing solo. Phill Niblock asked me to have him, because he didn’t want to have improv in his loft.
JS: Yeah, he wanted to keep it to composition work, so he suggested that Malcolm would be good at the thing I was putting together. And I’m sure it helped that Malcolm would bring people in and get them to know the space. That first concert opened the door. John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Phil Corner, and dozens of other composers –all kinds of people—came to see that concert. They loved the space and loved how it sounded and how it felt. We got something like 30 requests to do things there just after doing that. So we said, “O.K., this looks like a good thing. Let’s try and book everybody who wants to do something.” That next spring really turned into something. I think after we put the schedule together, Sal Martirano came out and was doing something on a Composers Forum concert at Cooper Union and asked if he could do something in the loft also. Anyway, it just took off.
FJO: Doing all that in your apartment probably didn’t jive well with the neighbors.
JS: Well, it was a loft building. They were all artists. Margaret Beals lived above me, and she was very cool. And Meredith Monk lived on the fifth floor, and a visual artist, Bob Smith, lived on the fourth floor. The top floor was Colleen McDonough, who’s at the ASCAP Foundation. Colleen’s roommate Anne Philbin, who’s now out in L.A. running a museum, had been at The Drawing Center. And Roma Baron, the producer for Laurie Anderson’s early stuff; she’s still in New York City working as a public defender and well as producing and recording projects. It was an artist building. So people did their work. And I didn’t push it too far. We tried to keep it really simple with everyone. I think that there were some loud things. John Zorn did some big game pieces where loud has to get louder at all times. David Linton came in and did things with his guitar where he’d amplified his drums to the point that the building shook, and that concert Margie objected to somewhat. But she got over it and was very supportive of what we were doing. She had her concerts, too. I ended up hanging a double sheetrock ceiling in that room to help mitigate the sound. Anyway, it worked. Concerts were at nine and they were usually over by eleven. So it was very workable, and that kind of thing went on in TriBeCa and SoHo.
FJO: How many nights a week?
JS: We ended up doing 60 concerts a year, sometimes up to 90. We had to keep it within the months that were not too cold or too hot. Usually we’d start in September and do the last concerts early in December, then come back in March and go ‘til the first part of May. So it allowed a lot of time for me to do my own work; I could keep up my activities as an improviser and trombonist. It was very balanced in that way.
FJO: Still, it was all happening in your apartment.
JS: And I ended up doing sound, so I was there for almost all of those concerts. But, yeah, there were times when every night for two weeks you had concerts, then you got a week off, then another two weeks [of concerts]. We’d do that three times in the fall, and three times in the spring. That’s what it was like. Then for the rest of the summer, I was off doing gigs.
FJO: But in terms of it being your home, let’s say something happens—you get sick with the flu or food poisoning—and you have a show scheduled, what happened?
JS: Well, it’s an L-shaped place. And I was doing this with David Weinstein. If something happened, he could take over and do things. We split it: he did box office; I did the sound. We’d switch. That happened the first few years and gradually we had other people involved. We’d bring on box office kids and get them paid 20 bucks or something. Over time I gradually got people to come in and do sound. Ben Manley, who’s [now] our tech director here, came in for a while with Dan Farkas and they would do sound for a bunch of the concerts. They learned how to do sound there back in the ‘80s. So people would come in, and I’d set up the sound and they’d come in and run the recording. It was a mix to stereo, simple back then, tape. Then we went to the PCM format, then DAT. Gradually we just went to computer.
FJO: Now in terms of the economics of running a space like this back then, it’s not like this could have ever been a big money maker. The space only held about 70 people. You mentioned bringing other people on and paying them. How did you keep it going?
JS: Well, the funding was a little easier. We got money from the Jerome Foundation early on and NYSCA. It was enough to start paying people a bit. And basically I’d had some inheritance. My father died the year that we started Roulette. So gradually I mostly invested that into equipment and the time to pursue that. And I did construction work—sheetrocking—on the side. I just got by, and gradually funding got better, enough to sustain us. You just piece it together and make it up as you go along.
FJO: It was a wonderful bubble while it lasted and it lasted for quite a long time, but then things changed. I remember going to a concert at the original Roulette, toward the end of its run in that space. A club had moved in downstairs and the music blasting from the club was louder than the concert.
JS: Yeah, in ’97. That was the beginning of the end. You know, some things were bad, some things were good. Alright, they were quiet certain nights, but it was a big problem. For years, it was just the luck of the draw. So many places had moved and shut down. The Loft Law, which came in 1982, sort of allowed us protection. We would have been long gone if that law hadn’t been passed. I think landlords expected that that law could get overturned, and so they kept stalling and not doing work, so the rent stayed frozen. When I moved in, it was six hundred bucks. After two years, it was raised to $700 and $800 and it got frozen. It was $800 a month from 1982 until the late ‘90s when finally they decided O.K., this law’s not going away. We’ve got to bring the buildings up to code and do work. Then they were allowed some substantial increases, but it still is rent stabilized. So now it’s relatively low for the amount of space and for TriBeCa, where rents are going for $20,000 to $30,000 a month for places. But that’s the nature of people staying in one place. There are people in the East Village still paying $400 bucks or less, you know. Zorn bought his place for very little. He was paying $40 dollars a month. But that was then. The housing situation in New York now really needs to be addressed.
FJO: What’s happened is that it has become almost impossible for a scene like the scene that you helped create in the late ‘70s to happen in Manhattan anymore.
JS: It couldn’t. About the time we started looking for this place in 2009, ’10, it was clear that the critical mass of activity had moved here to Brooklyn. Anything in terms of involving creative artists, if you didn’t have an institutional place, or a fixed, long-term lease, was impossible. Our situation was that when the building got its certificate of occupancy, the rules changed so that I could not present other people’s work anymore. I could present my own, but I couldn’t present other people in my space. At least that’s what the interpretation is. But it was fine. It was time to move out. We’d really grown to the point where it was a blessing in disguise that we got pushed to that.
A view of the audience at a Roulette performance in the Location One space in SoHo. Photo by Terri Hanlon, courtesy Jim Staley.
So we moved it around, and we finally settled on this gallery space on Greene Street in SoHo. Claire Montgomery showed me this space. It wasn’t really right for us for a permanent home, but she developed this space, so we went in and did some things, renting the space for two weeks at a time, pulling everything in and pulling everything out. That went on for two or three years. Then she didn’t really need that extra space or didn’t want to program the space and felt like they needed steady income there to cover the mortgage costs. But she wanted to keep hold of it at least a quarter of the time. So we took it three-quarters of the time. At that point there was air conditioning, so it could be year-round space and we just started presenting year round. The organization really jumped in terms of size. It was a street level space. It had its problems, but it was a great step for us. We had a three-year lease with an extra two-year option and we expected to renew it. But then the crisis came, and it caused pressure with the owner; he didn’t feel that he could promise to extend our stay there.
So we started looking around, and I stumbled upon this place. We worked with the Y [Y.W.C.A.]; there was a nine-month negotiation on the lease, but it worked out. You know, it is probably the best location we could be in. I walked in, and something I had felt about my loft is the way I felt about this. I walked in and immediately it just felt right. It had such a great feeling to it; you just wanted to stay. And this is what the scene has really needed. It needed a facility that could allow for Braxton to do his opera and all these other things that we couldn’t even hope to do in a gallery space—the dance works, the multi-media things. People have the room for a large audience or just to have a fantastic sounding space that’s well-equipped. We got a lot of help along the way to make this work.
FJO: It’s quite a transformation. It began in your own walk-up apartment, then concerts took place in an art gallery—both of these kinds of spaces were very much in keeping with the DIY ethos of the Downtown scene. But now it’s a bonafide venue.
JS: I’ve always felt this work really deserved to have a venue like this. It had outgrown the loft. It really needed a space that was a legitimate space. It worked with Greene Street. It was big enough. People could get there easily. But there were pillars in the way, and it was restrictive—it just wasn’t the full experience that people could have with the work. This space is very much like my loft in a sense. It’s just on a bigger scale. You’re intimate with the work—you can hear people thinking. And it sounds great and you can see everything.
FJO: There’s also a proscenium here, which establishes a certain kind of relationship between the performers and the audience—there are diverging opinions about that being optimal nowadays.
A view of the stage of the current Roulette. Photo by Doron Sadja, courtesy Roulette.
JS: Well, the stage used to be too high, so I’ve lowered it and stuck it out. It’s moveable, too. A lot of times people want to do things on the floor and be on the ground, if they want that intimacy. It can work a lot of different ways for people. It’s very flexible. That’s important. That goes back to that whole loft experience. Early SoHo, the Judson Church, all that stuff was about flexible spaces and non-fixed seating that could be used in whatever way the artist, composer, or performer needed it to be set up.
FJO: So one thing that I find amazing is they changed the laws on you so that it was O.K. to present your own work, but not O.K. to present other people, yet it was perfectly O.K. for a club to blast loud music that clearly wasn’t theirs to the point that it was drowning out some of your concerts. I remember being at a Christian Wolff concert that you had there, and the music from the club completely drowned it out since his music was really quiet. It was tragic.
JS: It was heart breaking what happened on some of those evenings. In the past, there had been a plumbing store. They went out at five. You could record in there, it was so quiet downtown. And a lot of recordings were done in there. It was a great space. Unless the fire department needed to go put out a fire, it was incredibly quiet down in TriBeCa in the ‘80s up until the mid-‘90s. It was ’97 when those guys moved in. And it really changed everything.
FJO: What I love about this new space is that it forever buries this idea that you can’t have a space that’s devoted to experimental music and sustain it. You’ve proven this music can have a significant venue. But I have to confess, and maybe it’s the lifelong Manhattanite in me talking, I remember initially feeling a little sad when I learned about the move. But it’s not just because of a selfish reason like it takes longer to get here for me personally. There had been a vital Downtown scene that had spawned so much amazing music. Roulette leaving, which happened around the same time that ISSUE Project Room also left Manhattan and moved to Brooklyn, felt like a death knell to Downtown music. But of course, the ethos is now something else and the scene here is very vibrant.
JS: Well yeah, it’s evolved. There’s a lot of creative activity going on. But these times are very different. The ‘60s and ‘70s were very mind expanding—you know, let’s try whatever. These days are about all the incredible challenges the world faces with climate change and the terrorism of the Middle East and the Tea Party, all of that stuff. I think it causes people to pull in. That was something I realized from my Army experience. When I was in San Francisco, all the people in that band were very radical. You’d get on a bus to go to a gig, and a third of the bus were Communists, a third were Anarchists, and they were always arguing with each other over political philosophy. We didn’t get a lot of military push back on us. We had to live within the lines, but there was a lot of freedom. There was stuff to go and do, and they left us alone. But when I went to Berlin, it was a very oppressive scene. Musicians—the non-lifers and even lifers—were much more conservative politically. But their way of doing things was much more radical. They broke out and screwed up the music, pushing back against the authority there. So it was interesting. Even though they were so much more radical in their actions, they were much more conservative in their political philosophy.
FJO: There is still some pretty radical music being made nowadays, though.
JS: We had a recent benefit that featured all artists who were under 40. There was such a range of things. Everybody seemed so reassured and excited that there was that much really interesting, creative work going on among young composers, that it was still going on and was interesting. They didn’t just have to go to a Christian Wolff concert to hear interesting work. But there’s a really different set of concerns, obviously, because it’s a different generation and the world has changed. In some ways, [the younger generation] may be more conservative in dealing with instrumentation and tonality. They’re dealing with the harmonic system more than you would have ever expected from the ‘60s and ‘70s; it was taboo in those days.
FJO: Well, one thing that has shifted fundamentally I think is attitudes about audiences. Once upon a time, it was assumed that really experimental concerts—whether Uptown or Downtown—would attract a small devoted coterie. Going to such a concert felt like being in on some incredible secret or like being part of chosen group—ultimately, almost everyone in those audiences knew one another. But now the secret is out. Few things have made me feel more euphoric about the ability for really experimental music to attract a broader audience than the re-creation of Cage’s Musicircus you presented here before the official opening of this space. Tons of people showed up for it. It was amazing.
JS: Yeah, it was a great happening.
FJO: It was a very different thing than just playing for the initiated. People came inside from the street because something really unusual was happening here; a whole potential new audience for experimental music was drawn to this event.
JS: Well, that certainly is the task. That’s something we’re always working for. We certainly have concerts where a dozen to twenty people show up, things that a lot more people should see. Jaap Blonk did an incredible concert here, but there weren’t so many people. He’s not well-known enough here. Our constant work is to expand our audience base, trying to get people to go to things that they don’t know about. We have some successes with that, but it’s something you really need to do a lot more of. That’s clearly the thing. That’s a lifelong task. We’ve been doing it since we opened our doors. We’re still working on that.
FJO: But it’s great that you are still committed to artists who don’t necessarily sell out the house automatically, that you are willing to take risks and you are offering audiences programs that they should take a chance with. So in terms of taking chances and taking risks, is that the reason for the name Roulette?
JS: Weinstein had that name. It was part of a Dadaist piece he did called Café Roulette. Dan Senn had been working on something with raku pottery, and we were kicking around all that stuff. Cage was very important at that time. We settled on something that was more secular, something that was a little more colorful than chance music for the people—for the gamblers in the society. It seemed like a good name to work with when you’re sitting around in a room and trying to come up with a name for the organization.
FJO: But it’s interesting that it wasn’t your name, because one of the things I find so compelling about your own musical projects are the titles that you give to things, like the series of trio performances that you released under the name Mumbo Jumbo. It’s wonderfully evocative. It instantly connotes language, communication between people, and it also connotes incomprehensibility, but in a humorous way.
JS: It was really about different conversations. I see improvisation as conversation in a sense, or counterpoint. It can go all different kinds of ways. You can be talking past each other, screaming at each other, or really interacting closely—a whole range of things are possible and interesting. Zorn had done his Locus Solus which is a really different kind of thing. It really was different groupings of people. And I thought, “Well, I want to do that.” And I found that I had different relationships with different people. My trio with Shelley Hirsch and Sam Bennett was sort of a vaudeville act with each person trying to pull the other guy and get in front of them. It was kind of aggressive. Whereas with Ikue Mori and Bill Frisell, you had to be careful you didn’t step on somebody because it was much more about just being respectful and letting everybody have the right space to do what they’re doing and appreciate that, rather than getting your word out in front of the other guy, who was always getting in front of you. It was really a different kind of dynamic with each of the different groups. That was interesting to me and fun.
Jim Staley in performance with Ikue Mori on drums and Bill Frisell on guitar at the Roulette’s original West Broadway venue in 1988. Photo by Barbara Mensch, courtesy Roulette.
FJO: It’s fascinating that you say that about those two particular trio configurations, because in the performances with Shelley Hirsch, you are singing into the trombone. You’re really responding to her extended vocals which take the voice far beyond singing; the trombone really becomes an ancillary voice. Whereas when you were playing with Frisell, I feel you took him to a more avant-garde place than he would typically go on his own. His sound world is all about distortion and feedback, and bending notes, but I feel that you were pushing him even further with the extended techniques you were exploring on the trombone, whereas it seemed to me that with Shelly Hirsch, she was pushing you to a new place.
JS: Well, I think we were all going around. I remember Bill at the end of something looking at me and saying, “I think it’s good.” That was his reaction to what was going on. The funny thing with the Zorn and [Fred] Frith trio was that up until that point all the things I did with Zorn had been with game calls. We did a lot of gigs together. I did an early record with him, and I felt a real affinity with him. And with Frith, he was always doing the table stuff [table-top guitars]. Well, our gig happened the day after John had done The Big Gundown for two days at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. So we show up at the studio, and separately Fred decides he’s going to bring his guitar and John decides he’s going to bring his sax. So it was a completely different kind of thing than I’d expected to happen with them.
FJO: It’s actually strangely the most conventional of all the trios on that disc. It’s almost like extended hard bop.
JS: Yeah. I played a duo gig with John once and before we started, I said, “Let’s just stay away from playing jazz.” First thing he did is go into total jazz licks. You know, you can’t tell him anything. So that was a good lesson.
Shelley Hirsch in performance at the original West Broadway location of Roulette. Photo courtesy Roulette.
FJO: Ha! Getting back to your titles, I have to admit I’m a little bit baffled by your use of the name Don Giovanni for another one of your improv projects. Is there something I’m missing?
JS: I was looking for a title and Weinstein was always great with bizarre titles. He was listening to it, and he said just call it “Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni.” I thought, “Well, that’s a little strange.” But then I listened to it and started following as things happened, the relationship between the different movements, or parts of it, happened to line up with some of the things, like the double trio; it seemed to line up with the structure. Obviously it wasn’t intentional. It was completely non-narrative. You know, we’re going in here and we’re totally improvising with whatever happens here with these different groupings. There’s still an emotional dynamic that happens between people and where they are in the studio. It just happens, especially in improv. It’s not necessarily expression; it just comes out. There are such quick choices that happen and become somewhat emotional on a level that you don’t even know you’re connecting with people, and stuff is going back and forth. You don’t know the connections are made until you listen later. That happens in improv all the time. So it’s not something you’re choosing. It something that’s sort of happening; you’re making choices all the time, but they’re not entirely completely thought-out choices. They’re coming out of a lot of places. I spent months going through it. I worked with Fred Frith producing; we worked together on it. When we were in the studio, he’d pipe in Iggy Pop to somebody and it changed the whole dynamic of things. And I did some stuff where there were ghost tracks where people were all listening to the same thing, but didn’t hear each other’s improv; it was just put on top of each other against a common thing. But when I listened back to it, it seemed to have a narrative in spite of itself. So I just sort of imposed that on it. It wasn’t something that was created with it. It just came out of it.
FJO: So there’s no Mozart in it?
FJO: Interesting. I don’t know if you guys did this intentionally as a joke, or if it’s somebody’s glitch somewhere, but there’s some meta-tagging of files digitally online that gives the composer as Mozart for all the tracks.
FJO: You didn’t know that?
JS: No! That must have been done with Virtual Ableton.
FJO: To get back to what you were saying about improvisation as conversation earlier, it seems like you really feed off of collaboration. That seems to be key to most of your work.
JS: Yeah. I much prefer as an improviser playing with people than doing solo. Solo is very hard to do. I can do short periods, but a whole evening is really rough. I really prefer working with people. And it also changes what I do. I’ll come up with different solutions or go different places if I’m working with different people. I certainly discover stuff in the middle of improvising based on what’s going on that I’d never done before.
FJO: And it also gives you the ability to influence somebody else. I’m thinking of a duo concert you did with Sylvie Courvoisier where both of you are going to places that I’ve never heard either of you go to at any other time. Also a performance you did with Zeena Parkins.
JS: Yeah, that was fun. Zeena came out wrapped in cellophane on one of them with a microphone. That’s how she began the thing.
Staley in a duet performance with pianist Borah Bergman at the Greene Street venue. Photo courtesy Jim Staley.
FJO: But I also think you’ve done some amazing solo performances.
JS: But it can’t be all evening. I mean, we’re used to violin or piano being a full evening concert by itself.
FJO: Well, violin alone is not all that common. There are people who do that, like Malcolm Goldstein who was your very first guest artist at Roulette, but it’s unusual. Solo trombone happens even less frequently, but it can be done.
JS: Yeah, for 20 or 30 minutes. I think people can sit through that.
FJO: So maintaining the balance between running Roulette and doing your own music—
JS: —Well, I have to say, it’s not balanced now. I mean, this [move to the new space] took over my life. I oversaw the renovation. There were concerts going on at Greene Street still in 2010/11, but it was a lot thinner. Our whole effort was managing this renovation project. I had a great architect that helped make it happen and great contractors. And of course my board is fantastic. They really stepped up financially and with business sensibilities and other things that have just made it possible. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But it took over my life. I’ve hardly played much. I go out with the Ramblers and I do a solo thing here and there, but my head hasn’t been there.
I’ve been focused on managing this—the budget went from $500,000 or so on Greene Street to $1.3 million in a year and a half, a big jump to pull off and, of course, it is much bigger place—and finding the right programming. Programming has to change for what comes here. There are so many groups in the community that use this place—the World Music Institute, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, the Brooklyn Philharmonic when it exists does things here, and other people. It’s not somebody who’s doing their first raw experiments. I think this facility is now for things that are developed a little bit. I still want to focus on experimental composers, people like Peter Evans and Jen Shyu and Tristan Perich, all these other fantastic young composers. Nate Wooley just did a fantastic concert and Kris Davis did a great concert here earlier this year. Gabrielle Herbst did an opera thing. Her instrumental writing is fantastic. It’s an opportunity to have a venue for that, and hopefully support for that, but those other things now have to go to other DIY spaces. This is somewhere they can grow to, where that work can grow to. Before you had to wait until you got big enough that maybe BAM would pay attention to you or Lincoln Center or maybe Merkin Hall or Miller Theatre, which is a once-every-five-years kind of event, if you’re lucky.
And now it’s back to bigger projects. Early in the ‘60s, people went out and certainly did bigger projects. They’d do them in Judson Church or outside or in some alternative space. Back in the’60s, everything was sort of on the edge of falling apart, so they could get into a hall and do a project. Those kinds of spaces aren’t so available anymore for people to just come up with something new. And also, like I said, the work has changed. When we started out, dance could be in my loft because everybody’s thinking was more minimalist. At some point I thought they were just bouncing off the walls and it just didn’t work. They needed bigger spaces for what they did.
FJO: You really have continued to pay attention to the whole continuum of adventurous music in all three spaces over the course of these 35 years. One thing we didn’t really speak about yet, and this continues what you were saying about growing audiences, is what you’ve been doing online with Roulette TV.
JS: It’s something I thought of a couple years ago. I went and applied and we got money through [former Brooklyn Borough President] Marty Markowitz. And finally, winding its way through the city capital budget, is a whole multi-camera robotics control set up that we have downstairs. I wanted to be able to do live video streaming of some of the events that we choose, or even where we’re going to make a separate special production for Roulette TV. It’s like TV, which is already an old concept. This is really much more trying to have a virtual performance space that—in conjunction with this performance space—hopefully will draw a larger audience for live stuff. Some of this music is just as moving if you just listen to it, but much of it you’ve got to see to really understand it. It doesn’t translate just through CDs, or just through audio.
It also really opens the possibility of having an artist come in and produce something that we just put out there over the internet. There are a lot of ideas we’re kicking around. But the idea is basically to expand the audience, to try to bring more people into the work, and open it up to the world. Anybody who has access to an internet connection can see this work, and I think it’s already happening.
FJO: So do you think by making this music available to people online that the kind of music you’ve been presenting at Roulette has a chance of becoming much more popular?
JS: People have different tastes. People that love Rachmaninoff may still love this, and they may not. Somebody might think it’s totally idiotic, but I’m sure it would inform something and come back in memory in some other way. Things have a ripple effect. I think there will be people that are drawn to it the more people have access to it. People that don’t have the means to come to New York to see this will be able to see it. And it will influence work in other parts of the world. Creative thought is a good thing for society; I think it has a positive impact in the end.
A view of the exterior of the current Roulette space at 509 Atlantic Avenue. Photo by Doron Sadja, courtesy Roulette.